Brooks: Johnson Seeking Stability In O-line
BOULDER - Mike Iltis jokes that if he's needed to placekick, be a receiver or even a holder, all the University of Colorado coaching staff must do is ask; he's merely a phone call or a text message away.
As spring practice nears a conclusion, it hasn't come to that yet for the Buffs. But within his area, the junior offensive lineman is making the rounds.
After shuffling from guard to center to guard over the past two seasons, the 6-foot-3, 290-pound Iltis is back at center - for now. He finished the 2009 season playing left guard, but over the winter complied with O-line coach Denver Johnson's plan to return him to center.
In identifying two solid lines, Johnson wanted to start with a pair of competent, experienced centers. Senior Keenan Stevens was one, Iltis was the other.
There was another factor, too, said Johnson: "I didn't want Mike taking any 'reps' from anyone else at guard. I wanted to get all those other guys getting as many 'reps' as possible - Eric Richter, Ethan Adkins, Shawn Daniels, Blake Behrens . . . I know Mike can go out there and play (guard) if we need him to."
And Iltis is more than willing "if that's the path we take. I totally support that. I know guard, I know center, I know tackle - but I couldn't play it. It's a totally different technique."
As Johnson goes about identifying enough linemen to stock two huddles, calling on Iltis to play tackle isn't likely. Johnson has enough bodies at that position, although he's seen how quickly the total can shrivel.
Senior Nate Solder, a coaches' All-Big 12 Conference choice last season, has been a fixture on the left side through spring drills. But the right side nearly has been a revolving door, with Bryce Givens' very productive spring work interrupted by a mandate to attend to academics.
Given more opportunities, sophomore Ryan Dannewitz is prospering in Givens' absence, and Johnson is giving high spring marks to redshirt freshmen Jack Harris and David Bakhtiari.
"Those two have shown they're not very far away," Johnson said. "Jack conceivably could make a push for some playing time. Bakhtiari has shown some real promise, but he needs to get heavier - he's still a little light in the britches (275 pounds). But as far as technique and aggressiveness and assertiveness, I've been pleased with both of them."
On the flip side, becoming a bit "lighter in the britches" has been junior Sione Tau's spring directive. After sitting out last season due to a school suspension, the 6-5 Tau's first listed spring weight was 350 - but that could have been a goal.
Johnson entered spring drills hoping to solidify the left guard spot. Instead, injuries and more academic bumps have forced him to mix and match at both left and right guards.
Junior Ryan Miller, the incumbent right side starter, was lost before spring break with a re-injured forearm that required surgery. Sophomore Max Tuioti-Mariner, a past victim of knee surgeries, suffered one more knee tweak early in drills and has since been told to finish the spring concentrating on academics.
CU signed junior college transfer Eric Richter (Saddleback College) to compete on the left side, and he believes he'll enter August camp being solidly in the mix.
"The last two weeks I feel really good about the progress I've made," said Richter, a January enrollee who made an immediate impact in the weight room (he bench pressed a team-best 505 pounds).
After "being right-handed my whole career," Richter (6-3, 305) had to adjust to having his left hand on the ground in a three-point stance.
"That was probably the most difficult thing . . . and working with a whole group of new guys," he said. "I was with the same guys for two years, and most of them were from high school, so really it was six years. But I feel the chemistry has gotten a lot better in the last few weeks; they've all accepted me really good."
Iltis agreed: "He's fit in very well . . . his personality fits with the culture we have on the offensive line and the team. He's a hard worker, very dedicated - loves the sport, loves the brotherhood. He's coming along just fine . . . this spring has been great for him to get a head start on his Buffalo IQ.
"When he knows what he's doing, he's a force to be reckoned with. He's got plenty of strength - excess reserves, as the Fed would say."
"You watch him play and you can tell the wheels are still turning," Johnson added. "He's trying to figure it out and get some real conviction as far as assignments go. When he knows exactly what he's doing, he looks a whole lot different."
Richter's ability to play either guard gives Johnson another option if Miller's comeback is delayed for any reason. But Miller said Monday he expects to resume full workouts by June and be 100 percent by the beginning of preseason camp, which would elate Johnson.
"Since I've been here, never had a completely healthy Ryan or Max ," he said. "Hopefully, we can get past that with both of them. I'd really be excited about that.
"I'm anxious to see what a 100 percent healthy, focused Max is all about. I've seen flashes and glimpses that make you think he could really be something special. But I need him to get back, get healthy and get his academics all in order."
In a perfect world - which college football in no way resembles - Johnson would have at least 10 players who are injury free and academically sound from the beginning to the end of spring drills. That would allow formation of the cohesion so vital to O-line play.
"You'd like to have everybody out there (now) who be in the equation in fall camp," Johnson said. "But we simply don't. It kind of cuts both ways - what you lose in cohesion, you gain in some other guys having the chance to advance themselves and maybe get some more, different and better quality reps than they might have otherwise.
"You have to accentuate the good and deal with the downside of it when you get to fall camp. Hopefully, we'll be at full force and have all hands on deck come fall."
BUFF BITS: After spending the first half of Tuesday's practice outdoors, high winds sent the Buffs inside their practice bubble for only the second time this spring . . . . The running back situation for Saturday's spring game (1:30 p.m., Folsom Field) might be worse than originally thought. Position coach Darian Hagan said Brian Lockridge - unless he does "double duty in the training room" - is doubtful, leaving only Quentin Hildreth and Corey Nabors available. Rodney "Speedy" Stewart practiced Tuesday, but Hagan reiterated that Stewart won't be a full participant Saturday. Looking on the positive side, Hagan said due to the scarcity of able bodies, "It will be good to give both guys (Hildreth and Nabors) good looks." . . . . After the four game captains are set, the draft that will divide the squad for Saturday's game will be conducted Wednesday afternoon . . . . Hagan, the head coach for one of the teams while Denver Johnson heads up the other, said he likes the format: "It's kind of like what we did with 'Mac' (former coach Bill McCartney) is splitting up the team when we were still doing the Alumni Games . . . it'll make for good competition and it'll offer a chance for the coaches to show their personalities." . . . . Saturday's schedule starts with Healthy Kids Day, which begins at 11 a.m. at Folsom Field. All events are free and open to the public. For more information, visit CUBuffs.com/springgame.